The New York Times recently ran a story describing the Savannah, Ga., defenders of Paula Deen. Deen, of course, is the recently disgraced television chef who was fired by the Food Network due to her admissions of casually using racial slurs and planning an antebellum plantation-themed wedding for her brother. […]
Few would question that the South was home to some of the world’s most virulent white racism just a few decades ago, but similarly, few would doubt that the region has made tremendous strides to overcome that legacy. Is there still more prejudice in the South than in the North?
Well, the short answer is yes. But…
The first thing that rubs me the wrong way about this article (besides Salon’s trademark white Northern liberal elitism) is the offhand remark about “welfare queens” and food stamp recipients being more likely to be non-white. Not true. White people are the biggest group of welfare and food stamp recipients; and, if you control for SES, I think it would come out that white people receive both at higher rates than other racial/ethnic groups.
Second, the difference between North and South on the symbolic racism questions is not all that great–60% of Northerners still come out as racist in this. That 70% of Southerners test positive isn’t particularly grounds to say, “SEE?! Southerners ARE more racist! Whew!” No, we should be thinking about why.
Just as the article acknowledges the social desirability component, it could be argued that this still happens at an advanced rate in the North. That is, Southerners now know (in theory) that they can’t be overtly racist, so there’s the adoption of covert, symbolic racist terminology to obscure that overt racism. But what makes us believe that Northerners haven’t taken this to yet another level, e.g. learning that it’s not proper to refer to “welfare queens,” but to adopt an even more subtle distinction/discourse?
Is this all to say that Southerners aren’t more racist, or that the legacy of racism and slavery in the South isn’t more debilitating than it is in the North? No, but the terrain of racism, especially in its institutionalized forms, is complicated. Milwaukee, for example, is reliably the most racially-segregated city in the country. Colorado still has communities advertised as being “covenant.” California has gated communities that act as defacto covenant neighborhoods (and some even explicitly so). California’s cities also have some of the worst policing practices in the country (both in terms of violence and profiling) and the worst prisons in the country. New York City also has stop-and-frisk.
What we can conclude, perhaps, from these examples and the study cited by Salon, is this: the South is, at the very least, honest about where it stands, while the North has adopted much more insidious and covert forms of racism, guided by practices designed to be race-blind on their face, to mask even the shape of symbolic racism, which can assist white supremacist projects without running into the widespread resistance faced by the South during (and before and after) the height of the Civil Rights Movement. After all, where were the Panthers the strongest? Cities like Oakland and Chicago. The South, in part, never pursued these subterranean racist structures because they were so proud of their racism, or so in denial (usually a mix of both).
Returning to the survey, given that the North (in principle) was pursuing equality and anti-racism 150 years ago, and Mississippi just recently finally banned slavery, is the North’s lower response rate actually that impressive? After all, the popular Northern narrative would hold, similar response rates 150 years ago would have been 95% South, 40% North.
But really, this “attitude test” neglects to look at actual outcomes, which is probably the better way to examine how actual (i.e. structural) racism functions. And such a study, conducted honestly, will likely show that no region in the country is anywhere close to eradicating racism, and the difference between North and South is nowhere near large enough to absolve the North of its continuing struggle with racism.